Democrats' Ground Zero in '98

Wisconsin district offers a window on the efforts of Democrats to gain control of the House in November.

Lydia Spottswood's campaign office, a warren of half-empty basement rooms down a sparsely traveled road, looks like an insurance office that's going out of business.

Outside, there's no sign. But there will be, soon. And inside, big teal and purple "Lydia" posters lean against a desk, awaiting deployment. Within weeks, the paid campaign staff will grow from three to seven people.

"Have you heard Hillary [Clinton] is coming at the end of the month?" says Ms. Spottswood, this freckle-faced soccer mom brightening at the prospect of big-name fund-raising help.

This is ground zero for the Democratic Party's best shot at winning back Wisconsin's First Congressional District - and a key part of the party's overall strategy for retaking control of the 435-seat House of Representatives, which the GOP controls by only an 11-seat margin.

Political observers agree the US Senate - 55 Republicans vs. 45 Democrats - will remain in Republican hands. They also agree Republicans are more than likely to retain the House. But the fact that there's a chance the Democrats could retake control is noteworthy, given that the party that controls the White House has lost congressional seats in every off-year election since the Civil War, except 1934.

Even the possibility of gaining any seats at all has the Democrats jazzed. Of course, an even closer partisan balance in Congress could make getting anything done more difficult than it already is. But Democrats say they'll worry about that later.

For now, both parties agree that Wisconsin presents as good a bellwether on the fall races as any state in an election year that looks to be a quiet one. Two Republican incumbents are retiring. Two Democratic seats, held by freshmen, are vulnerable.

"If I were gonna pick a state to look at, that's the one I'd pick," says Mary Crawford, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The Thompson factor

Aside from the four hot congressional races, Wisconsin will elect a governor and a senator. Republicans think the governor's race, in which the popular Tommy Thompson (R) is expected to run for reelection and win easily, will benefit them. Governor Thompson will make sure Republicans turn out for him, and pull other candidates on the ticket along with him, say GOP leaders.

Across the country, Republicans are counting on their dominance of statehouses - they currently hold 32 governorships - to continue this November, and provide coattails for other Republicans.

Wisconsin's Senate race, which pits current First District House member Mark Neumann (R) against incumbent Sen. Russell Feingold (D), is expected to be close, another reason for voters to turn out in an otherwise ho-hum year.

On election night, the Democrats say, watch Wisconsin's two open seats. "If we win both, we may be heading toward picking up anywhere from four to 12 or 13 seats," says Dan Sallick, communications director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "If we win one, it probably means we still may be picking up seats, but maybe not enough to win back the House."

Mr. Sallick puts Spottswood in the Democrats' "top 10 list" of candidates, and adds that after losing her first shot at Congress in 1996, after jumping in late to challenge Congressman Neumann, she's showing she learned from that experience: She launched her 1998 campaign early and has already raised $375,000.

Ms. Crawford, Sallick's Republican counterpart, warns against underestimating Spotts-wood's likely opponent, former congressional aide Paul Ryan. "I've worked with him, and I know how smart he is about politics," she says. "He went back and got very involved in the community. He was doing very well on fund-raising."

Mr. Ryan is relatively young - under 30 - and looks it, a factor that could hurt him, say political observers. But Spottswood isn't necessarily a shoo-in. Wisconsin's First District has a strong working-class component, and Spottswood's wealth - her husband is a surgeon - could work against her.

A first for Wisconsin

But Spottswood, a nurse by profession and mother of three teenagers, is confident that her leadership of the Kenosha City Council and her focus on health care, education, and jobs will give her the edge to become the first woman ever elected to Congress from Wisconsin. She thinks she can get her voters to turn out, despite the strong economy.

"We're all thrilled at Wall Street exploding over the 9000 mark," she says. But "that's happening because of what's happening on Main Street. Increasingly, Americans are working fulltime for part-time pay and benefits. They're running harder and harder to stay in place."

As elsewhere around the country, the key to this race will be turnout: Who can get their base to go vote. In Wisconsin's First, the partisan breakdown is a near-perfect split. In 1996, Democratic President Clinton won the district with 50 percent of the vote, and Republican Neumann won reelection with 51 percent.

In the end, political observer Stuart Rothenberg predicts no major shift in the balance of House control come November. What's noteworthy this year is that so few seats are "in play" - only 60 or 70, compared with 120 to 140 in the last three elections.

The incumbent reelection rate will be quite high, he says. With voters increasingly apathetic, both parties had trouble recruiting, and some potentially vulnerable members may slide back in in the face of weak or absent competition.

Mr. Rothenberg's bottom line: "Anything from a small Republican to a small Democratic gain is reasonable, it seems to me."

The wild cards

One wild card in this fall's races is independent spending. Outside groups will be more active than ever in the 1998 campaigns - airing television ads, sending direct mail, and getting on the phones, all of which are beyond the control of the candidates themselves.

The result could be some surprises, as comfortable incumbents find themselves fighting for their political lives. In 1996, the AFL-CIO made waves by spending $35 million on issue-advocacy ads in about 30 races, helping to defeat 11 political opponents.

This year, labor will go from an air war to a ground war, deploying about 300 "grass-roots" coordinators around the country.

From the right, conservative activist groups - such as Gary Bauer's Campaign for Working Families - will also deploy their resources in races where they believe they can help like-minded candidates.

The net result is that the candidates themselves are raising more money than ever. Spottswood says she spends about three hours a day focused on the money chase, dialing for dollars, and attending fund-raising events.

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